Airport scanners may raise radiation risk if used improperly, study says 

Going to the airport requires passengers to make many choices, including one of the most pressing these days: whether or not to use the full body scanner?

While some studies have said the level of radiation in the scanners is not enough to cause concern, a new analysis released by UC San Francisco might give some people cause for concern.

The analysis found that if the machines are used properly, the amount of radiation a passenger going through a body scanner absorbs is equivalent to what’s taken in during any three- to nine-minute period of the day.

But if the devices are not used properly, radiation emitted could rise and increase the risk of cancer.

The problem is the devices have not been thoroughly tested by independent researchers to determine when they are malfunctioning and emitting more radiation.

“We don’t know the doses of radiation they would emit or how they would malfunction,” said Dr. Rebecca Smith-Bindman, who conducted the analysis. “We’re assuming they work as intended, but I fully believe [the Transportation Security Administration] should be prudent and allow more independent testing.”

The analysis, which appeared in the March 28 edition of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, questions why more testing isn’t done. Human error or mechanical malfunction could cause scanners to exceed their specifications and expose people to higher levels of radiation.

Smith-Bindman, a UCSF professor, said if more independent testing was done and risks were better understood, the scanners might be more trusted.

The scanners in Smith-Bindman’s analysis, known as backscatter scanners, are used to trace radiation off an object hidden on the body that would not be caught using a metal detector. It’s one of many technologies used at airports to detect potential threats before boarding an aircraft.

Another well-known scanner used at airports is the millimeter wave scanner, which produces a 3-D body image to detect potentially harmful materials carried on a person.

There are currently 486 imaging technology units at 78 U.S. airports, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Though more scanners are appearing in airports, those who don’t want to go through one can opt to do the old-fashioned pat-down at the airport. It’s something Smith-Bindman used to do, until she did her research.

“I used to avoid them when I went to the airport,” Smith-Bindman said. “But now I don’t.”

Taking a peek

Properly working body scanners produce radiation that’s equivalent to what is absorbed during a three- to nine-minute period of the day.

486 Scanners nationwide
78 Airports using scanners

Sources: TSA, UCSF

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